Incredibly, according to Ethiopian tradition, the Begena is often referred to as 'King David's Harp' - introduced to Ethiopia in Biblical times, (along with the actual Ark of the Covenant, which according to the same tradition, still is housed in Ethiopia, in the chapel of Axum) by Menelik I - whom according to ancient Ethiopian tradition, was none other than the son of King Solomon himself and the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba...
Exactly like the Ethiopian Begena, all the evidence suggests that the Nevel Asor of Biblical times, was a bass register instrument (for the reasons outlined in my discussion of the Biblical Nevel and outlined again below in this section), and according to the first hand writings of the 1st century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, was played with the fingers (instead of a plectrum, which he described the Kinnor being played with). Also like the Biblical Nevel, the Begena also generally has a soundboard of skin!
There is a fascinating video clip of a Begena Lyre player which I have recently found on Youtube:
According to Ethiopian tradition, Menelik I brought the Temple Lyres to Ethiopia from Israel...crucially, the Begena Lyre also has 10 strings - identical in number to the 10 sheep gut strings of the original, ancient Hebrew Kinnor of King David and the Nevel Asor, played in the Temple of Jerusalem!
I am almost certain that there is an amazing spiritual significance to this number of strings used on the Biblical Lyre - 10 strings, to represent the 10 Commandments? The possible links between ancient Israel and ancient Ethiopia go much further than this - also according to Ethiopian tradition, Menelik I also brought over to Ethiopia none other than the actual Ark of the Covenant, which according to the same tradition, is still kept under guard at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum...
COULD THE ETHIOPIAN BEGENA BE IDENTIFIED AS EITHER THE BIBLICAL KINNOR OR THE BIBLICAL NEVEL?
The only difference I can think of, between the contemporary Begena, and the ancient Jewish Kinnor, may be one of pitch - the Begena is a bass instrument. This leads me to believe that the Begena could maybe regarded as a relic of the Biblical Nevel lyre, rather than the Kinnor. As discussed earlier, according the the Mishnah, the Biblical Nevel had thicker strings made of the sheep's large intestines, whereas the Kinnor's thinner strings were made from the small intestines.
Another clue to the hypothesis that the Nevel was a bass instrument, also comes from the number of Nevels which were used in comparison to the number of Kinnors used in the Levitical Ensemble - according to the Mishna, the use of the Nevel in th Levitical Ensemble was limited to "no fewer than two and no more than six", whereas "never fewer than nine Kinnorot, and more may be added" (Mishnah, Arak 2:5)
This implies that the Nevels provided the bass, over which the softer, treble/alto Kinnors provided the melodic lines - just as in a modern string orchestra, where the number of violins greatly outnumbers the number of double basses/cellos.
Further evidence in my attempt at identifying the Begena with the Biblical Nevel, can also be deduced from the playing style itself - according to the contemporary observations and records by Josephus Flavius, who actually witnessed the Levitical Ensemble in the 1st century CE, the Nevel was played with the fingers, whereas the Kinnor was played with a plectrum (Antiquities, vii.12.3). The Begena is always played with the fingers...just like the Biblical Nevel!
Quite often, the Begena has a soundboard of taut leather, as in the video clip - this could be evidence of the interpretation mentioned above, of the elusive Biblical Nevel as having a skin membrane.
However, what of the twelve strings of the original Biblical Nevel, which Josephus also informs us of in his Antiquities vii. 12.3? The modern Begena has ten strings, like the Biblical Kinnor. This anomaly can be explained by the Biblical reference to another type of Nevel - the "Nevel Asor". This name literally means "A Nevel With Ten Strings"!
Here is the Biblical musicologist, John Wheeler's thoughts on this fascinating possibility:
"The ten-stringed wooden lyre I've seen from Ethiopia might well be a descendant of Egypt's version of what the Bible calls kinnor al - ha-Sheminit. Suzanne haik Vnatoura thought that might be like the Greek magadis with ten pairs of strings, but another possibility is that it was simply a bass lyre - a kinnor tuned an octave lover, "upon the Eighth" in Hebrew. Whereas the nevel `al -alamot "upon Maidens" or of "maidenly pitch" was more numerous and thus apparently of higher pitch than the specialized kinnor (all this referring to 1 Chronicles 15). The regular kinnor and nevel likely had a reverse pitch relationship, with the kinnor higher than the nevel (given the latter's thicker strings).
As far as I've ever seen in archaeology, bass versions of the kinnor and other bass lyres were only played with the fingers - that practice going back to ancient Mesopotamia. Lyres with plectra are at lowest of about high tenor range. I can play my Celtic harp with a guitar pick readily enough all the way down, but it sounds a whole lot better on the upper monofilament strings, again from high tenor range up."
If this hypothesis is true, then the Ethiopian Begena, therefore, could be quite literally described as the elusive Biblical Nevel Asor - unchanged, in over 3000 years! A truly fascinating possibility...
THE SOUND OF THE BEGENA AND THE SOUND OF THE RESTORED BULL LYRE OF UR - AN ONOMATOPOEIC ORIGIN OF THE ANCIENT HEBREW WORD FOR "MELODY"?
It is also fascinating just how similar the contemporary Begena Lyre sounds, compared to the playable reconstruction of the famous 4600 year old "Bull Lyre of Ur":
It is particularly interesting to hear the same "buzz" the gut strings make, in both the replica Lyre of Ur, and the Begena - maybe, the reason the Hebrew words for melody; "Zemer" and Psalms, "Mizmor", sounds like they do, is because originally, these words were onomatopoeic - the actual sounds of the words "Zemer" and "Mizmor", sound like the buzzing of the gut strings as they would have sounded on the original, ancient Biblical lyres? Yet another fascinating possibility!
Indeed, the flatter bench-shaped bridges most commonly depicted on almost all illustrations of ancient lyres, suggest that some sort of subtle buzzing quality was common to the timbre of most of the actual lyres of antiquity. The buzzing quality of the strings is associated with this type of bridge, in contrast to the 'clean' harp-like tone produced by a more modern 'A' shaped pointed bridge found on most modern 'replica' lyres, whose bridge is actually based more on the design of the bridge of a modern guitar! My replica ancient Greek chelys (tortoise shell form lyre) made by Luthieros in modern day Greece, has this more authentic 'bench-shaped' bridge, and produces just such a subtle buzz, similar to that of a sitar. I am therefore almost certain, that it is more likely that the original Biblical lyres also had this hypnotic buzzing timbre.
The fact that the Ethiopian word for melody is the strikingly similar sounding word "Mezmur", to me, reinforces the evidence for an ancient musical connection going back to Biblical times, between the music of ancient Israel and Ethiopia.
Whatever the facts or fiction in the Ethiopian tradition of Menelik I and his marriage to the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, there certainly seems to be more facts than fiction in the ever growing grains of evidence I have so far explored! However it may have actually happened, to me, I am now almost certain that somehow, the ancient sound of Biblical Nevel Asor can still be heard today, amazingly preserved since Biblical times, in the enchanting, exotic timbres of the Ethiopian Begena...